Saturday, 18 March 2017

French Film Festival (4) - Barrie Pattison shells out for ETERNITE, CHOCOLAT and MOKA

Frogfest is scoring the occasional capacity turn out though day time sessions are still thinly attended. Prices prevent a more complete assessment of the content with what is on view so far on the glum side.

Hard to relate Tran Anh Hung’s Éternité, his glowingly art directed ‘scope family saga, to the director of Cyclo (France/Vietnam, 1995).

It’s set in a society of women, not unlike the one I grew up in, where the only events are children and funerals. The men are off somewhere earning the living and making the occasional father appearance. Here the marriages however produce seven children.

It is a film that plays on the senses. The scope screen is packed with colour and detail. The water at the beach outing is unnaturally blue. The camera pans off the action to a single orchid. You can near to smell the varnish and stuffed furniture of the elaborate interiors and the wet foliage mulching all those sunny flower gardens. They even manage tactile - holding naked babies with their tiny fingers closing round their mothers’ hand. The sex is deliberately tame however, the inexperienced bride nervously rounding the screen where Pierre Deladonchamps waits on their wedding night.

The thing that makes this one remarkable is that below all this glowing, beautiful family life texture there is the hint of menace and decay which only occasionally breaks the surface. His daughter reproaches Jérémie Renier for his constantly pumping babies out of Mélanie Laurent to the point where she lies dying in the bed with her new born or the cut to Bérénice Bejo (now at peak star status) screaming in close up. Audrey Tautou disappears until we go back to her as the matriarch almost forgotten by her descendants.

Religion, normally a matter of marriages and baptism, intrudes when Alice Hubball tells mother Tautou she’s going to become a Carmelite nun. The sons are headed for the wars.

The form is curious, with the bulk of the information carried in elegant French language narration by the director’s wife Tran Nu Yên-Khê and the characters themselves only rarely shown speaking, all backed by solo piano.

I was becoming restless with the minimal development (someone in the row in front was snoring) until it became obvious that the motor was not the film’s almost peripheral narrative but its shifting moods, its gradually progressing reality. The finale is the voice over telling us about the hundreds of descendants all this baby making has produced as a girl runs ecstatically across one of the present day Seine bridges in sunlight to meet her admirer.

It will be curious to see if a film pitched to such a refined taste will do even the business of the Tran Anh Hung Asian movies.

Roschdy Zem’s Chocolat gives off a sinister vibe right from its opening glimpse of the tatty nineteenth century French provincial Cirque Delvaux where Omar Sy (The Intouchables) does an African wildman act with a chimp, to scare the kids. It makes James Thiérrée (recognisably Charlie Chaplin’s grand son) jump, visiting afterwards with a proposal of what will be their pioneering Footit & Chocolat act. Circus proprietor Frédéric Pierrott is sceptical until his thin audience starts laughing.

Elegant Olivier Gourmet, conspicuous in the scruffy spectators, watches and offers the pair a spot at his metropolitan hard top. Despite their ratty costumes they are an
immediate hit in their try out, resented by the clowns already working, but they become the draw of the show - intensive marketing, posters, toys, the flip book we see in the final scene and an exhibit at the musée Grevin, where a boy slips away from the fetching Clotilde Hesme’s education tour to see the famous Chocolat posing with his wax mannequin.

She convinces Sy that he should entertain the children in the hospital where she nurses and they become an item. However things don’t go well with Sy. He spends his earnings on an (impressive) motor car, gaming and laudanum - better than liquor - gets into arguments about the act with Thiérrée and the gendarmes take him away to throw him into a cell and do their own comedy act of turning him into a white man, scrubbing him with street brooms till he bleeds. There he’s politicised by an Haitian who alerts him to the racism of this society and the fact that he is popular because whites like seeing a black man humiliated. He introduces him to a tattered copy of Othello.

Sy finds a manager who will stage the play, making him the first black actor in French theatre and becoming the most confronting experience of his life.

The Sy as Chocolat story runs parallel with that of Thiérrée who manages to emerge as the real Pagliacci character with his break down, telling Hesme of his unrelieved loneliness.

Handsomely mounted and exceptionally played by a strong cast, it has the occasional flourish like the tilt from a highlight on the lake to the city lights they dissolve into or Sy’s wonder at their arrival in busy Paris streets or his repeating the child’s gesture of fingering his face to see if the colour will come off with an objectionable black face clown. Gabriel Yared’s unobtrusive score is a major asset.

As an actor Rochdy Zem is one of the strengths of French cinema. His work as a director is less assured. Apart from being a real downer, the emphasis in this one wanders distractingly - document of theatre history, anti racist tract, over familiar rise and fall drama. Can’t help noticing that the routines they stage are less effective than the real Footit & Chocolat Lumiére reel the film ends with. That includes the sitting on the bench gag that Abbott and Costello will do in Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap incidentally.

Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka has been cited as an overlooked film. It’s mainly made up of ‘scope medium shots of Emanuele Devos looking stressed, which in a more varied movie would be a valuable element.

The plot emerges as her on the vengeance trail over the hit and run death of her teenage son. Detective Jean-Philippe Écoffey has traced four large brown vehicles fitting the witness description. At the second attempt Devos finds the bottle blonde Natalie Baye and David Clavel couple. She moves into a near by Evian hotel and passes herself off separately as a prospective buyer for the car and a customer for Baye’s beauty salon, being unnaturally chummy with them.

The heart is scenes between the two women, backed effectively by the unfamiliar, menacing Lausanne locations, with funiculaire, the lake where people go to drown themselves, gendarmes wait on the dock looking for smugglers and there’s “one shitty club” for the young people of Evian.

The switch ending (“You stop even for a dog”) and the school meeting with the son’s girl friend  partly redeems draggy body of the film. 

With a bit of luck, more shortly.

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